Cuba is an island whose culture is entrancing, hypnotic and certainly unique, but Havana in particular holds the arts in the highest regard, forging a capital city with creativity on every corner. We took to the streets of Cuba’s iconic capital, under the wing of legendary rum masters Havana Club, for a local perspective on Havana’s spoils. With a rich history, and a very recent one at that, visitors are still able to witness Havana’s restoration at work.
Holing up in a casa particular, or home-stay, is the most authentic way to experience Havana. You might be lucky like us and get a rooftop terrace, fitted with quaint patio furniture and hanging pot plants, or make a long-time friend in the owner. Don’t expect the guarantee of hot showers or Internet, but take it in your stride and immerse yourself in this time-warped city. While we initially dreaded the thought of a WiFi-less week, living a life away from today’s tech-centric world is a real bonus.
If this life really isn’t for you, the picturesque sea-view Hotel Nacional de Cuba is perfect for a more luxurious stay. With the Santa Clara Battery guns on display in the garden, this World Heritage Site will also give you an insight into Cuba’s past.
See and Do
Cruising around Old Havana in a classic open top convertible – a bright yellow 1957 Dodge to be exact – is a stylish way to sightsee. Experience the city’s architectural contrasts, with the grand Capitol on one side and neglected narrow houses on the other; even the coach and horses don’t seem out of place. The film-set like plazas and dilapidated buildings will have you pitching the location for the next Bond film, with James switching up a vodka martini for a classic Cuba Libre after a pursuit on Havana’s rickety rooftops. After all, the upcoming Fast and Furious was filmed along the bustling seaside promenade – the Malecón.
Take a trip to the Havana Club Museum of Rum, housed in a restored 18th century colonial townhouse, and soak up the history behind Cuba’s premium rum in a guided tour, culminating in a much-desired trip to the bar and boutique.
Havana Club is not just any spirit brand but one that is immensely proud of its strong Cuban roots; the whole rum-making process takes place in Cuba using home-grown ingredients. Its global platform, Havana Cultura, supports creativity in all its forms and exports Cuban culture to the wider world. The Elliot Erwitt Havana Club 7 Fellowship is just one example of this, continuing Erwitt’s legacy by providing a world-class photographer with the opportunity to travel to Cuba and create a series of photos capturing its soul. You’ll get a chance to see the finished product in the gallery within the Rum Museum.
The Acosta Danza company, whose Havana-born founder Carlos Acosta is internationally renowned for his spellbinding participation in The Royal Ballet of London, is an incredible opportunity to see world-class talent first-hand. The fusion of ballet and contemporary dance is made to look effortless. Get into the Cuban spirit and book tickets for the English leg of their tour in October 2017.
Food and Drinks
Foodies will rejoice at the newfound food scene in Cuba, an island that has been criticised in the past for their largely state-owned cuisine. With the 2011 change in legislation permitting the expansion of paladares (private restaurants), Havana is experiencing a true culinary revolution. Cuban cuisine remains straightforward with pork, lobster and the ubiquitous ropa vieja (shredded beef) popping up on every menu, but the flavours do not disappoint. Greens might be hard to come by but you’ll be glad to be away from the kale craze, especially when presented with our new favourite snack, their tempting plantain chips, served alongside moros y cristianos (rice and black beans).
La Guarida was the most inventive of all, a sure winner in both the quality of their food and unforgettable setting. This paladar lies in a decaying mansion, seemingly ready to crumble at any minute. We started our evening with the top three cocktails from the 2014 Havana Club International Cocktail Grand Prix at the rooftop-bar: our favourite, La Mansión, was reminiscent of a traditional mojito but jazzed up with peach marmalade.
This twice-yearly contest asks renowned bartenders to create a concoction using only Cuban ingredients. After drooling over the dishes arriving at the elegant terraced restaurant below, we made our way to our table. The food lives up to the hype with luxurious appetisers of marlin tacos, mains of juicy lobster on a bed of creamy risotto and a fittingly petite chocolate pudding and deconstructed lemon meringue pie to top it all off. Make sure to finish off dinner the Cuban way with a sobremesa: Havana Club Añejo 7 Años in one hand and a Cohibo cigar in the other.
Havana and rum go hand in hand and you can’t get more luxurious than the Havana Club Icónica collection, consisting of five deluxe extra-aged rums. Our recommendation would be the rich yet delicate Máximo Extra Añejo, an amber-tinted rum crafted from the blending of the oldest reserves in Havana Club’s cellars. Encased in a hand-blown crystal decanter bottle, the opulent packaging says it all. It does not get much more exclusive than this, with only 1,000 bottles produced each year.
The Maestros Roneros (masters of rum), led by the god-like figure Don José Navarro, are experts in the art of rum making, with at least fifteen years training under their belts and a flair for precision. They preside over every step of the complex creation process, whether that be the distillation, ageing or blending stages. The tasting notes act only as an introduction. The true flavours, as we are told by rum master Manuel Calderón, depend on each person’s background and culture.
In a Nutshell
Behind Havana’s ramshackle exterior lies unexpected luxury. It’s safe to say that anywhere else is incomparable to this historic island. We left with a bottle of the essential Havana Club 3 años and an infinite thirst for Cuban culture.
An extended feature on Cuba will appear in our next issue, The Luxury Issue, out in June.
Words by Hannah Brandler